Health and Science

World Health Organization names the new coronavirus: COVID-19

Key Points
  • The new coronavirus now has a name: COVID-19.
  • The CO stands for corona, the VI for virus and the D for disease.
  • WHO officials wanted a name that doesn't refer to a geographical location, animals, an individual or a group of people.
Medical staff check a patient's condition at a temporary hospital converted from "Wuhan Livingroom" in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 10, 2020.
Xiong Qi | Xinhua | Getty Images

The flu-like coronavirus that has sickened more than 43,100 people in over two dozen countries now has a name: COVID-19.

The CO stands for corona, the VI for virus and the D for disease, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, announced Tuesday at a news conference at the agency's headquarters in Geneva.

"Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing," Tedros told reporters. "It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreak."

Tedros said the agency wanted to avoid stigmatizing a country or particular group, so it chose a name that did not refer to a geographical location, animals, an individual or a group of people.

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Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's chief scientist, said the acronym allows for flexibility for naming new coronaviruses that may emerge in the future.

"Coronavirus is a group of viruses that are quite common," Swaminathan said. "There are many known strains of coronavirus. It is possible that there will be another strain of coronavirus. Then that could also be named by the year it appeared."

"It's important to have a name that everybody uses — both for scientific purposes to compare ... and also to avoid a number of different stigmatizing or other forms of confusing names," she added.

The virus had been tentatively referred to as 2019-nCoV. Some people on social media have referred to the respiratory illness as the "Wuhan virus" or "China virus."

Once names are established in common usage, especially through the internet and social media, they are difficult to change, WHO officials have said. For example, the "swine flu" and "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome" had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain foods, communities or economic sectors, they said.

Since emerging in Wuhan in central China over a month ago, the new virus has spread from about 300 people as of Jan. 21 to more than 43,000 — with the number of new cases growing by the thousands every day.

The coronavirus pneumonia produces mild cold symptoms in about 80% of patients, Dr. Sylvie Briand, head of WHO's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness division, told reporters Monday. About 15% of the people who contract the virus have ended up with pneumonia with 3% to 5% of all patients needing intensive care, she said.

The WHO's global research and innovation forum met for the first time Tuesday at the organization's headquarters in Geneva.

Attendees include representatives of China and other member states, infectious disease experts, bioethicists and major research funders, according to the preliminary agenda. The mission of the forum is to establish a common understanding of the virus and to agree upon priorities and governance framework moving forward. The forum will continue through Wednesday.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's emergencies program, said Monday the team, working with Chinese scientists, hopes to learn the source of the outbreak and the virus's natural host.

Read CNBC's live updates to see the latest news on the COVID-19 outbreak.